The Leopard in Ancient Egypt

Priest in a leopard-skin robe

Egyptian Name:

Abi or Bashema

A leopard, part of tribute from Nubia


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The African Leopard was occasionally kept as a pet by royalty, and the goddess Mafdet was sometimes worshiped in the form of a leopard. Live animals and skins were brought to Egypt as part of the tribute from Nubia. Queen Hatshepsut is recorded as having leopards imported from Punt to become part of her royal zoo.

The skin of the leopard, complete with head, tail, and paws, was prized as priestly dress, because the pattern of the skin represents the stars, both a symbol of eternity, and associated with the moon. Being rare, cloth imitations of leopard skins have been found, made of linen decorated with gold rosettes, with gilded wooden heads and golden claws.

Girdles made of golden leopard heads were buried with royal women. The notoriously short temper of the leopard was proverbial among the Egyptians, who used it often to describe royal ire. The Egyptian mythological creature known as a serpopard was a mix between a leopard and giraffe.

Leopard made of ivory

A story recorded in the first millennium B.C.E. tells how the wicked god Set disguised himself as a leopard to desecrate the body of Osiris. He was seized by Anubis and branded all over with a hot iron. This, according to Egyptian myth, is how the leopard got its spots. Anubis then flayed Set and wore his bloody skin as a warning to those who would disturb the dead. It was Anubis who then decreed that priests should wear leopard skins to honor his triumph over Set.

The ancient Egyptians used the same word for both "cheetah" and "leopard," although the two felines are clearly distinguishable from each other in tomb paintings, due to the leopard's pattern of spots and stockier build.

006_mnklnklnkl;nkl(2).jpgA statue of Tutankhamen standing on a leopard was one of the objects destroyed during the recent rioting in Egypt.

The Felines of Ancient Egypt